Five social-media mavens to steal from

No one’s calling you a thief, pal. But the restaurant business certainly abounds in “coincidence.” A successful idea hatched by one operator tends to appear in short order throughout the industry—in almost exactly the same form! Mini-desserts anyone?

So, we suggest: don’t limit yourself to menu items or concepts.

Here are five online personalities who fall just a cape and mask short of being social media superheroes. As their followings and reputations attest, they’ve mastered the use of Twitter, Facebook, blogs or all of the above. Their practices should merit the attention of any restaurateurs looking for ideas to, um, “borrow” for their own efforts. And by the way, their techniques are good, but so is their content, which might offer some business lessons too.

Here are five to case:

@zappos, the Twitter handle of Tony Hsieh. The 37-year-old CEO of Zappo’s has drawn nearly 2 million followers with his tweets. That puts him in the rarified company of such boldfaced names as Rachel Maddow and Leonardo DiCaprio. And he sells shoes.

Which he does very well, in part by fostering a high-touch service culture that may be more renowned than Nordstrom’s at this point.

Social media is part of the effort. Many of @zappos’ tweets in effect whisper to customers, “Hey, you’re part of us.” Witness a recent post that updates the lives of two patrons who were married at Zappo’s Las Vegas headquarters. Another linked to a music video made by the “Zappo’s Family.”

Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) also provides a sense of what he’s all about. There’s more than a dash of whimsy (“Swam in Silverton mermaid aquarium on my birthday! Wore costume b/c they don’t allow birthday suits”) if not self-deprecation (“Had to turn off the TV. I was getting dangerously close to thinking I really needed to buy a ShamWow.”)

He’s a friend who’ll share secrets about the online shoe store you both love, like gossip about a project that’s under wraps to all but the 2 million followers.

The volume of posts is lower than you might expect. Hsieh seems to average two or three tweets a week. Virtually all feature a link to a wide variety of things that snag his attention, from a standout article on entrepreneurship to a video of fellow e-tailer Jeff Bezos.

Steal it: Make it personal and insider-y. Make the audience feel a part of an exclusive club, not just by offering deals, but by offering insight into the brand. You may be an adept marketer, but how do you maintain that distinction in the age of social media? Scott Monty, the director of social media for Ford Motor Co., provides some insight with both how he blogs and what he covers.

Because is his personal blog, he can offer critical analysis of companies’ current marketing without worrying about a splash back on Ford. Not only are ample do’s and don’t’s there for the picking, but he provides a blog-writing lesson with every post.

If you do nothing more than check out his post of Dec. 13, to learn how a corporate behemoth handles a critical product introduction, you’ll come away with an understanding of how and why social media can be a critical element of a marketing plan.

Steal it: Take note of how Ford uses social media to stoke interest in a product introduction. It’s not such a leap to use the same teaser techniques for a new menu item or drink line. Look in particular for the entries of Yaro Starak, the founder of the blog site and several successful web businesses, and frequent contributor Ana Hoffman. You may have to wade through some blatant promotion for Starak and his business, but you’ll also find good nuts and bolts information on starting, maintaining and using the Web to market a small enterprise.

Here again, the presentation can be as instructional as the content. Note how Starak uses other voices in his posts, a model that can work well for a restaurant president or CEO who wants to blog frequently but doesn’t have the time.

The material is self-testing. If you can grasp all of what the bloggers are saying, you’re up to speed on the capabilities of the Web for a start-up or thriving small business.

Steal it: Would-be bloggers say they wouldn’t know what to write. Starak averts that roadblock by posting interesting tidbits from other people. A chain restaurateur, for instance, could cite what chains or foodies are saying about a product category the brand is entering with a promotion or menu launch. If video holds more appeal for you than words, regardless of the social medium, then meet the master, Gary Vaynerchuk, a wine geek turned internet star. His vlogs (that’s video blogs, for the uninitiated) have made him one of the most popular personalities of the blogosphere.

The big takeaway: How passion trumps production values. A DVD-quality recording is a nice extra, but as Vaynerchuk demonstrates, it’s the heartfelt message that counts. In a recent post, he’s wearing a Yankees cap and t-shirt, standing in front of what looks like a storefront. You’re not going to mistake him for a news anchor.

Steal it: Witness how Vaynerchuck uses the camera almost as if it’s a friend with whom he’s talking. Notice the production values and use those as a feasible benchmark. If you want to dream a little, visit this site from Southwest Airlines. Social Media Examiner, an authority on all things social, named it one of the web’s 10 best business blogs, noting that it was “designed to build a relationship between the brand and their consumers.”

If budget restrictions aren’t an issue, here’s a model for fostering a similar connection with guests. A recent visit found installments from 10 contributors, all posted within a week. And that didn’t include the video and audio entries. Clearly some money’s been earmarked for this project.

But even if you’re operating on a shoestring, there’s a big lesson there. Look at how carefully the topics were chosen to hook the targeted audience. “Their secret to success is they understand their loyal flyers’ needs and interests and capitalize on that,” explains Social Media Examiner.

If you doubt it, check out the mid-January post on turbulence and what causes it.

Steal it: You may not have the budget for a site like this, but attitude and approach are free. Address your customers as fanatics who want to know more about your brand and how you serve their needs.

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